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New Jersey Latinos in the Labor Market

The main attraction of New Jersey for this growing influx of Latinos has been economic opportunities, as the state has one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States and a wide range of economic activities. Additionally, some Latino migrants have left their homelands because of civil unrest and repressive governments in the Caribbean, Central America, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile. These migrants come from different economic backgrounds, with a few from the upper class, many from the middle class, and a large number from the working class; different racial groups, including Native Americans, blacks, Caucasians, mulattoes, and mestizos; different educational backgrounds, with 30 percent of the Latinos in New Jersey having a college education, and 45 percent having less than a high school diploma; and different work skills, with some very high-skilled workers, and many low skilled.

Most Latinos have settled in New Jersey’s most urban counties, Hudson and Essex, but many (of all classes, legal, and undocumented) have chosen suburban locations. Only a very small portion now lives in rural locations. Thus, Union City which has a total population of 60,000 in 1.27 square miles, the most densely populated municipality in the United States has attracted not only large numbers of Cubans but also Puerto Ricans and migrants from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Ecuador. Suburban Morristown has Latinos from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Guatemala. Migrants from Costa Rica, Honduras, and Ecuador have settled in Atlantic City, and a significant number of Mexicans and Guatemalans have located in Bound Brook, Hightstown, and New Brunswick.

Latinos participate in a wide range of economic activities. Although a number of Puerto Ricans were attracted to agricultural labor during World War II and for some years after it, the opportunities in this field of work declined, and by the year 2000 less than 4,000 from among all Latinos were involved in farming. The great

majority of Puerto Ricans who migrated into New Jersey starting in the late 1940s settled mostly in cities and engaged in blue-collar, factory, and service labor.

When well-educated Cubans came in the 1960s, many, including lawyers and entrepreneurs without financial resources, could not find employment in their professions. Out of necessity a considerable number took jobs as factory operatives, truck drivers, service persons, or in other employment that did not fully utilize their skills. Still, these persons maintained their middle-class outlook. By 1980 the number of Cubans in white-collar jobs had doubled, in comparison to the late 1960s. This trend continued in the following decades. Other well-educated, affluent Latino migrants, including some refugees, came to New Jersey from Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic trying to escape unsettled conditions and lack of opportunity in those countries. However, most migrants from Latin American countries were semiskilled or unskilled.

Though most Latino migrant workers in New Jersey are male, the number of Latina women working outside of the home has markedly increased. A Cuban female Spanish-language editor stated:

You know, work gives color to life. In Cuba, it was not common that women worked, although I was a teacher myself. But things have changed here. Most Cuban women work and are very active. I am not saying all these nice things about work because I have a nice job. I worked in a factory many years ago when I came to the United States and I still would say that work, no matter what kind, is good for human beings.

Another Cuban woman said, Dependency does not yield anything good for a woman. Married individuals should maintain independent finances, especially in this country. It wasn’t like that in Cuba. Women were dependent on men.2 Although the experience of coming to New Jersey from Latin America, sometimes without any funds, has meant downward mobility for some, in many cases it has meant better employment for migrants, and particularly for their children. One example is a man born in Argentina who came as a youth to New Jersey with his Spanish parents in the mid-1960s. His father was a tailor in Ridgewood, but he was able to attend and graduate from college and from Seton Hall Law School, thus becoming an immigration lawyer. He is married to a Cuban American systems analyst, the daughter of a bus driver and a seamstress, who obtained a master’s degree in industrial psychology from Stevens Institute of Technology.

An additional path to economic advancement has been through entrepreneur-ship.3 A considerable number of Latinos have opened their own businesses in the food industry, in retail, in the service sector, in transportation, and in technology. In 1990 there were 40 Latino-owned stores in Englewood, a small city in New Jersey. Latino entrepreneurs have made major contributions to the revitalization

of the downtown areas of many cities, such as Union City. Some migrant business entrepreneurs have advanced their economic success by forming and joining ethnic business organizations. One such organization is the Hispanic Business and Professional Association, started in Bergen County and now covering northern New Jersey. By the early 1990s this association had some 100 members mostly of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Colombian backgrounds who were retail store and small business owners, travel agents, accountants, lawyers, engineers, computer specialists, and doctors. Hispanic chambers of commerce have been organized in Paterson and in other places in the state.

Contributions to the New Jersey economy have been made also by the labor of the undocumented. Many workers from Mexico and some from Guatemala and Honduras form groups of day laborers in many New Jersey suburban municipalities. In one such place, Bergenfield, some 100 men gather at a location outside of town and wait for landscapers, craftsmen, and other employers for daily work. The employers, with the cooperation of the local police, find laborers who are hard working, dependable, and inexpensive. These Mexican workers claim that the $8 to $10 an hour, on average, that they receive is 10 times what they could get back home, if they were lucky enough to get work at all. To support their families in Mexico and to pay for a trip home about once a year, they live in poor conditions to greatly restrict their expenditures.

When in the late 1980s the federal government enacted an amnesty program, the Center for Concern in Englewood processed 135 undocumented workers. Among these were 62 Colombians, a large portion of whom had been working in lace making and knitting factories, 13 Peruvians, most of whom were bookkeepers, and 12 El Salvadorans and Costa Ricans who worked in restaurants or were day laborers. Some undocumented workers have progressed in terms of jobs and income. For example, an undocumented Panamanian family has been able to save and buy a home in Brick, New Jersey. The husband had started by parking cars, later becoming the manager of a parking garage, and his wife engages in domestic work.

In 2005, 18.6 percent of the Latinos in New Jersey were in management and professional positions (of whom 37.5 percent were Cubans and 9.4 percent Mexicans); 24.8 percent were in service occupations (of whom 13.2 percent were Cubans and 30 percent Mexicans); 22.7 percent in sales and office jobs (of whom 27 percent were Cubans and 16.3 percent Mexicans); 12 percent in construction, maintenance and repair work (of whom 17.8 percent were Ecuadorians and 6 percent Dominicans); 21.3 percent in production, transportation, and moving employment (of whom 27.5 percent were Ecuadorians and 14.5 percent were Cubans); and 9.2 percent in government jobs (of whom 16.6 percent were Cubans and 3.2 percent Mexicans). Of the total Latino population 8.2 percent were unemployed, of whom 9 percent were Dominicans and 3.8 percent Mexicans. The

median income for all the Latino households was $42,000, with Dominicans at the lower end ($37,000) and Cubans at the higher end ($52,000). The overall median per capita income for men working full time was $31,000, and for women working full time, $27,000. The poverty rate for Latinos in New Jersey was 18.2 percent, ranging from 22 percent for Mexicans to 9.5 percent for Ecuadorians. The overall averages were brought down by the arrival of new, less skilled migrants and by the decline in industrial jobs in New Jersey’s urban areas, where many Latinos reside.

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